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“Resistance to American power lies in the alleyways of Fallujah and Baghdad, not the lobbies of the Upper East Side.”

Peter Gowan 2 November 2023


Originally published in the New Left Review, in 2003

The San Francisco Conference ended in fitting style, with a last- minute gala thrown by Nelson Rockefeller in the St Francis Yacht Club, ‘highlighted by the appearance of Carmen Miranda, “the Brazilian Bombshell”, to celebrate the wind-up’. This was followed by a splendidly choreographed finale in the Opera House, klieg lights blazing over a décor of luxurious props in various shades of blue, a flow chart to track the movement of delegates, rehearsals of each signature of the Charter in a hidden room behind the stage, and last-minute manoeuvres to prevent Argentina from leading the otherwise alphabetical parade of signatories. As soon as the ceremony was completed, ‘armed guards rushed the Charter upstairs and placed it in a seventy-five-pound fireproof safe’. The precious cargo was then transported in a special army plane—wrapped in its own parachute in case of mishap—to Washington by no less a personage than Alger Hiss, the Secretary-General of the Conference. Expecting a corresponding full-dress reception on delivering it to the White House, Hiss was mortified to find the President relaxing in his shirtsleeves, a shot of bourbon in hand, indifferent to the majesty of the new Covenant in its Ark of combination-locked steel.

The aftermath of the conference was no less symbolic. Where the league had been killed off in the US Senate, the UN was greeted ecstatically on Capitol Hill, where the assembled legislators sped its ratification through with almost indecent haste—of the forty-nine signatories to the treaty only Somoza’s Nicaragua and El Salvador beat them to the punch. There were only two dissenting votes. Senator Vandenberg, who could fairly count himself one of the architects of success in the Opera House, gave a stem-winding performance—‘I am prepared to proceed with the great adventure. I see no other way. I believe it will bless the earth’, etc.—in the course of which he allowed that people might say that some signatories ‘practise the precise opposite of what they preach even as they sign’; but ‘I reply the nearer right you may be in any such gloomy indictment, the greater is the need for the new pattern which promises to stem these evil tides . . . the nearer right you are, the greater is the urgency for invoking the emancipations which the San Francisco Charter contemplates’. No better maxim for the characteristic hypocrisies of the UN could have been found: the more brutal and cynical the conduct of its dominant powers, the more essential to ‘invoke’ and ‘contemplate’ the balm of its uplifting principles. The fate of Stettinius, unceremoniously jettisoned by Truman within days of completing his mission in San Francisco, was a more candid barometer of the actual status assigned to the UN in American grand designs in the coming years. Throughout the Cold War, US global strategy proceeded along Achesonian lines.

Schlesinger’s book exults that the creation of the UN was ‘from the beginning, a project of the United States, devised by the State Department, expertly guided by two hands-on Presidents, and propelled by US power’. He makes no bones of the fact that in San Francisco, ‘Stettinius was presiding over an enterprise his nation was already dominating and moulding’. In his eyes, the result was a magnificent feat—‘for a nation rightly proud of its innumerable accomplishments, this unique achievement should always be at the top of its illustrious roster’, and other peoples owe gratitude to Americans for having bestowed it on them. ‘The United Nations’, he exclaims, ‘might eventually turn out to be the most resplendent gift the United States has given the world’. Is this disarming vision— America’s supreme gift to humanity the outcome of its domination over it—historically realistic?

A more advanced agenda

Given the fact that the Rooseveltian design did ensure US dominance over the politics of the capitalist world (with veto-protections for the USSR), it might seem odd that American leaders should have found the organization insufficient as the principal instrument of US hegemony. A clue can be found in another of Acheson’s remarks about the world body. He claimed that the UN was a nineteenth-century idea. This was clearly an exaggeration, but his meaning was surely that its conception belonged to an epoch before American hegemony. For the formal raison d’être of the UN, like the league before it, was to bring great- power wars amongst (capitalist) states to an end, by laying down rules for collective action to stop them. For the British and other satisfied powers of the interwar years, that was an admirable principle. By then London had grabbed what it wanted—and more—across the globe, and the liberal legalism, so perfectly captured and criticized by E. H. Carr, that was embodied in the league and made the basis of its jurisprudence, answered to its interests.

This remained at the heart of Roosevelt’s conception of the UN, albeit with the Wilsonian amendment for self-determination which helped open up the British and other European empires. Yet the collective security function of defending the status quo against revisionist powers was irrelevant under US hegemony for the simple reason that America, unlike Britain, possessed the resources to impose a unipolar control over all the other capitalist powers, both in Western Europe and in East Asia. In this sense, Acheson was right: the collective security principle was old-fashioned and supererogatory under US hegemony. It basically still addressed what had been the most intractable problem of the Europe-centred world that existed before American dominance.

Of course, for the US to play the role of guardian and manager of the entire core required militarizing the American state on a permanent basis. But that in turn looked as if it might help resolve tricky problems of the domestic political economy. In these conditions, the UN was not only redundant as an instrument for stabilizing relations among the main capitalist centres. From an Achesonian angle, it was worse than redundant because, in the cause of collective political defence of the status quo, it advanced a juridical principle which was, at best, unhelpful: absolute national sovereignty. This again was a principle more attuned to the era of British than of American imperialism. The British never had the capacity to reshape coercively the internal arrangements of other capitalist states. Their speciality was taking over and reshaping pre-capitalist societies, defeating traditionalist forces of resistance within them. So the principle of absolute states’ rights and non-interference was perfectly acceptable to the British, once they had reached the limits of their empire.

But Washington had a different and more advanced agenda: first, to penetrate existing capitalist states and reorganize their internal arrangements to suit US purposes; and second, to defeat any social forces there that rejected the American path to modernity in the name, not of traditionalism, but of an alternative modernity. The UN model simply did not address these issues which were so central for Washington. Indeed, it offered a notional defence against American interference in its emphasis on national sovereignty. As a result, the UN politico-legal order was a cumbersome obstacle to a great deal of US post-war activity, forcing much of its drive for internal regime change to be organized covertly. The Achesonian principle of uniting the free (market) world against all resistance—thematized as ‘Communism’—to the American way of organizing modern life, made short work of the phraseologies of the UN Charter. Ratcheting up the Soviet threat, it turned the two main centres of capitalism in Eurasia, Western Europe and Japan, into quasi-protectorates of the US—so enabling Washington to rebuild Germany and Japan as the industrial hubs of their respective regions without fear that they might once again develop geopolitical strategies for re-organizing their regions as rivals to it. Paralysing the UN system, with its prominent symbolic place for the USSR, was thus a necessary component of Achesonian primacy.

After the fall

The first Gulf War of 1991 was as much a false dawn for the post-Cold War UN as Korea had been at the start of the Cold War. In violating the principle of unconditional state sovereignty, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait enabled the US to exploit the UN to the full for a demonstration of the new reach of American hegemony, as the Soviet Union tottered towards extinction. But now more than ever, the UN’s utility to the US in the post–Cold War world required that its core principle of state sovereignty be scrapped. For that principle suggests that states are free to organize their domestic political economies as they wish, whereas the profit streams of American (and much of European, especially British) business depend crucially on internal arrangements in other states that provide unfettered freedom to external financial operators, unfettered rights for foreign companies to buy out domestic concerns and unfettered protection of monopoly rents on intellectual property. The UN Charter guarantees none of this: theoretically, indeed, it works against it.

Thus during the 1990s, the US and its European associates sought to rework the traditional discourse of the UN, arguing that sovereignty was not unconditional, but 
should be viewed as a revocable licence granted to states by the ‘international community’, to be issued or withdrawn according to the palatability or otherwise of their internal regime. If a state failed to meet appropriate international standards, blockade or invasion were warranted against it. In constructing this revision, on which a host of jurists and diplomats has laboured, Washington (and London) were able to draw on other strands in UN ideals to good effect. The eclectic repertoire of the Charter itself, with its salmagundi of contradictory clauses, offered a ready antidote to any too narrow insistence on national sovereignty. For, after all, it was also a resonant statement of universal human rights. These were the higher values the time demanded, legitimizing a new ‘military humanism’ in defence of them. In the Balkans, war could be waged by NATO in the name of both human rights and free markets, with the blessing of the UN secretary-general, and after-sales service ministered by the Security Council. In the late 1990s, Roosevelt’s original vision of the UN as the central instrument of American global power looked as if it might come alive again, beyond even his expectations, since Russia too could now be numbered among its dependents in a way he could scarcely have imagined at Yalta.

But even this change has not been enough to persuade successive presidents to rely on the UN as their chosen instrument of hegemony. The White House has remained committed to the model of primacy, organized through hub-and-spokes security alliances that make the other main capitalist states dependent for their security on the US. Under the current Republican administration, however, the geopolitics of Achesonian ‘containment’ has been turned on its head: instead of protecting the two Eurasian rimlands through a confrontation with the Eurasian heartland, Bush is pushing US power deep into the centre of the heartland—a zone from the Eastern Mediterranean through the Gulf and the Central Asian region up to China’s western borders. This internally unstable zone generates anxieties in all the main Eurasian powers. It also holds the energy reserves needed by all of them except Russia. By holding this zone, Washington could hope to gain leverage for an extended version of the primacy it enjoyed in the Cold War, encompassing even its former adversaries in Moscow and Beijing. In that light, a new global cleavage against ‘terrorism’ offers a much more flexible basis for wide-ranging interventionism than any legal formula the UN secretariat, however good-willing, could provide.

Were this prospect to materialize, the UN would be slotted into the framework of American hegemony as an auxiliary machinery once again, as in the days of the Cold War, but this time with the other four permanent members of the Security Council firmly subordinated to US directives—an awesome engine of world dictatorship. If it is frustrated, Washington can at least be sure that there is no chance of any other forces being able to use the UN as an effective check on the predatory instincts of the US and its British sidekick. For many years, the only vetoes actually cast in the Security Council have been American.

Bush’s ‘unilateralism’ represents the revival of a global cleavage structure of friend–enemy relations, with a new set of security alliances and greatly expanded basing arrangements to match. To allies grown accustomed to the conventions of the nineties, this has come as quite a shock. But, even if more precariously, the Rooseveltian framework still holds. After the most brazen of all American wars in violation of the UN Charter, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, every hand in the Security Council—some eagerly, others more sullenly—has gone up to endorse the puppet authority installed by the conquerors, ratifying their conquest.

The Iraqi maquis, capable of hitting not only the US and UK occupiers but their UN collaborators too, has nevertheless shaken the confidence of the ‘international community’ in the hegemon. Secretary-General Annan has even been moved to tell the world that ‘one has to be careful not to confuse the UN with the US’, as if such an error could ever have occurred under his stewardship. But there is little sign as yet that much is likely to change within the United Nations. Any real reform of it would probably require—as Danilo Zolo, its most acute critic, has intimated—the withdrawal from the organization of one or several big Third World countries, to force a change in the status and composition of the Security Council, and an unambiguous shift of power to the General Assembly. Only that kind of shock could break the armour-plated settlement created in 1945. But it is enough to glance at the corrupt or pliant leaderships in the most obvious candidate nations to see how utopian such a prospect remains. For the moment, resistance to American power lies in the alleyways of Fallujah and Baghdad, not the lobbies of the Upper East Side.

— An adapted excerpt from Contraventions: Editorials from New Left Review, Edited by New Left Review and Susan Watkins.


From 9/11 to the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, the eurozone crisis to the Brexit vote, the Great Recession to the Arab Spring, the rise of China to the annexation of Crimea, the passage from O...

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